Achieving Zero Injuries: Caring Is Not Nearly Enough

V. Scott Pignolet

November 1, 2003

A Serious Problem: In the last 10 years more than 28,000 insulation workers sustained injuries involving days away from work. Forty-six of them were injured fatally.

While the number of injury cases has declined to slightly less than 2,000 per year, the number of days spent away from work, per case, has increased steadily. In 2001, an average of 10 days of work were missed per injury. These diverging indicators raise an interesting question that warrants further investigation-why is it that we are seeing fewer injuries overall, yet they are significantly more serious? Even more disturbing, during the last 10 years the number of fatalities has also trended upward.

For the insulation industry, this is only part of the story. These numbers don’t include the injuries and fatalities that occur in the factories that manufacture insulation materials, at the fabrication shops, in the distribution warehouses or to delivery persons or salesmen driving to an appointment. Also, these numbers don’t include injuries and fatalities to insulation workers that are reported as specialty contractor, general and residential construction, HVAC, or building services worker injuries. And, they don’t include less severe "medical treatment" injuries and "first aid cases" that involve pain and suffering, but not days away from work.

Getting the full picture for the industry is a difficult task because all segments of the industry are not neatly reported in one category and associated work hours aren’t readily available for analyzing.

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t waste a moment worrying about the composition of the numbers as long as there is even a single drop of blood being spilled. Regardless of how the numbers are tallied, even if they totaled just one, it’s one too many. This is a serious problem that deserves the attention of everyone in the industry.

Achieving "zero injuries" in the workplace is the only acceptable goal.

"Caring is not enough. Caring is not nearly enough."

"Caring is not enough. Caring is not nearly enough." Those are the words of Paul H. O’Neill as he spoke about his 13 years as chief executive officer of the aluminum manufacturing company, Alcoa. O’Neill was talking about what it takes to achieve "zero injuries" in the workplace.

O’Neill knows what he is talking about. In 1988, when he became Alcoa’s CEO, the company’s lost workday case rate was 1.86; each year almost two out of every 100 employees were getting hurt seriously enough to miss work.

On his first day of work he met with his corporate safety director. O’Neill told him, "Beginning today, the goal for Alcoa is that no one would ever be hurt at work, not just lost workday cases, but no scratches, no first aid, nothing."

Looking back at his experience, O’Neill said, "Now, if leadership was just about giving orders and getting responses, a year later Alcoa’s rate would have gone to zero. Well, it didn’t go to zero. Why is that? Believe me, it’s not because I wasn’t paying attention to the issue and talking about it every place I went every day."

Not long after O’Neill took the helm, an Alcoa employee was fatally injured. The deceased employee was 18 years old, with three months of service, leaving behind a pregnant widow. He had jumped over a barrier to clear a jam on a piece of moving equipment in an attempt to keep production running.

O’Neill assembled his management team and told them, "We killed him."

O’Neill admitted that his management team hated him for saying that and he hated saying it. But he felt the strong words were necessary to get the message of management accountability across to his team. Before that, O’Neill said, "People would get all emotional about an accident, and they thought that was all they needed to do. Caring isn’t enough. Caring is not nearly enough."

When O’Neill left in 2001 to become U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Alcoa’s lost workday case rate was 0.14. That’s an order of magnitude change over his tenure. By comparison, the 2001 lost workday case rate for insulation workers was 3.45, or 24 times worse than Alcoa’s rate.

The Case for Safety

Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, "Honey, we have a new objective at work to reduce our Total Recordable Injuries to 1.0, and I volunteered to help the company meet its goal by being the guy that gets hurt. Will you meet me at the hospital around 3 p.m?" Nobody plans to get hurt, and yet injuries occur.

Take a minute and write down the three most important things in your life. What were they? Chances are they included faith, family, friends, health, or a hobby. Where on your list does it say making sure we install 1,000 feet of pipe covering today or making the company just one more dollar? Safety is personal! It’s not about company objectives or mandatory requirements. It’s about being there, fully able to enjoy the things that really matter to us. Every employee has an obligation to themselves and their family to take personal responsibility for their safety.

And, is it any different for those who work with you and for you?

Every owner, manager, supervisor, foreman and worker in the construction industry and insulation trade would do well to reflect on the leadership principles of Paul O’Neill. You are accountable for the safety of those that work for you and with you!

This issue transcends union, non-union and merit shops, from the president of the company down to the insulation helper on the job. The goal for workplace safety should be "not even a scratch." Everyone goes home tonight a little bit better off for having worked today than when they arrived this morning. And it’s going to take a lot more than just caring to make it a reality.

General Gordon Sullivan, who developed the plans for the "new" Army after the end of the Cold War, wrote a book called "Hope is Not a Method." We can’t achieve an injury-free workplace by just caring or hoping. So what is it going to take?

"Making Zero Accidents a Reality"

In the early 1990s the Construction Industry Institute (CII) established a "Making Zero Accidents a Reality" project team to find out what it takes to eliminate worker injuries in the construction and maintenance industries workplace. CII, based in Austin Texas, is a consortium of leading owners, contractors, suppliers, and academia who are interested in improving the safety, quality, schedule, and cost-effectiveness of its members through research and implementation support.

The central tenet of the project team is the belief that "zero injuries" is achievable. Their first research findings, which were reported in 1993, found that it just wasn’t possible, but some companies were indeed achieving "zero injuries." Their goal was to understand what techniques are most effective in eliminating injuries in the workplace.

Last year, as a follow up to their initial efforts, the task force revisited their research. In February 2003, they released their latest findings. The CII and Project Team 160, under the leadership of John Mathis from Bechtel Corporation, were more than happy to share their findings with the readers of Insulation Outlook magazine.

The Study

According to Project Team 160 member P. D. Frey of Austin Industries, the latest "Zero Accident Study" used two approaches to identify practices that have significantly lowered recordable injury rates.

They did a survey of the ENR 400 largest construction companies in the United States. Of the 400 surveys sent out, 106 responses were received.

They also studied and conducted extensive interviews at 38 construction projects covering a wide geographical area with project values between $50 million and $600 million. These included projects in the petrochemical, industrial, public works, transportation, hotel-casino, and commercial industries sectors. Of the 38 projects studied, four had achieved "zero injuries."

The most recent update focused on turnarounds and shutdowns. This occurs when a manufacturing facility is shut down to allow the necessary work to be done. The facility may be a power plant, chemical processing, pulp or paper mill, refinery or any other kind of manufacturing facility. Needless to say, if your plant isn’t operating you aren’t making money and the time available to complete all work is at a premium. The emphasis is on getting work done fast.

Because a lot of insulation work is done on a project basis with tight deadlines, the findings of this study are relevant to the insulation trade.

The original study in 1993 identified five "high-impact zero injury techniques" that have been used to significantly lower or eliminate recordable injuries. In addition, the study found 170 specific safety techniques. It’s worth mentioning that no company uses all 170 techniques, but all the companies in the study use various combinations of at least 114 of the techniques.

Nine Industry Best Practices

The five Best Practices for "Making Zero Accidents a Reality," revealed in the first study, were reconfirmed in the update study and four new effective techniques were identified and added. The nine industry best practices as identified by the Construction Industry Institute are:

  • Demonstrated management commitment

  • Staffing for safety

  • Safety planning – pre-project/pre-task

  • Safety training and education

  • Worker involvement and participation

  • Recognition and rewards

  • Subcontractor management

  • Accident/incident reporting and investigation

  • Drug and alcohol testing

Demonstrated Management Commitment

While everyone should personally accept responsibility for their own safety, management can reinforce and support the safety initiative by emphasizing the importance of working safely and demonstrating their commitment. Management sets direction and leads with their words and actions. We have all heard that "actions speak louder than words."

  • Company president/senior management reviews safety performance report? No – 6.89/Yes – 0.97

  • Top management participated in investigation of recordable injuries? <50 percent - 6.89/All - 1.20

  • Frequency home office safety inspections? >Monthly – 2.63/< Bi-weekly - 1.33

The report suggests that managers, from supervisors to top-level managers, in the most effective companies are actively involved in project safety in many ways. They demonstrate their commitment through participation in field safety inspections, involvement in safety initiatives, such as: training and orientation, and accident investigations. The key, according to the study, is that top managers must be involved in worker safety at the project level to exert a strong influence on establishing the safety culture. Management’s involvement and commitment makes a big difference.

The box above, and the ones that follow, examine some of the key elements of the study and compare the different answers and their corresponding Lost Workday Case Injury Rate (LWCIR). Smaller numbers represent better results with zero as the goal. For example, in companies where the president and senior management regularly review project safety performance, the LWCIR is 0.97 versus 6.89 where they are not involved.

Staffing For Safety

A finding that was a bit of a revelation to the team members was the impact of proper staffing on safety. Many members of the team were safety professionals who have long believed in the importance of their role, but the new study identified specific techniques and quantified their impact. The Project Team felt the study findings that related to safety representatives, safety communication tools, and personal protective equipment were among the most important in the study.

  • To whom does the safety representative report? Line/Project – 2.41/Corporate/Staff – 1.38

  • Number of Workers per safety professional? >50 – 2.35/<50 - 1.33

Most of the projects had a full-time safety representative on the job site. A few of the safety representatives covered multiple, nearby sites. Generally, the safety representatives were company employees. In a few cases they were outside consultants.

All of the safety representatives participated in regular project meetings about cost, schedule and quality. The study found that safety personnel were integrated with all project functions.

Safety Planning – Pre-Project / Pre-Task

  • Does the project have a site specific safety program? No – 5.43/Yes – 1.76

  • Are pre-task meetings held? No – 2.67/Yes -1.04

  • Is safety training a line item in the budget? No – 2.63/Yes -1.38

According to the project team leader, John Mathis, the nature of construction and maintenance work is dynamic. Risk is constantly changing and it’s critical to follow the risk path. To be effective, the safety program must be relevant to the job site and one way to do that is to develop a site-specific program.

The study found that systematic front-end planning was done at almost every project in the form of pre-project and pre-task reviews. The focus is on potentially hazardous tasks, conditions and materials. The reviews identify special training and/or procedures needed to perform the work safely.

This technique improves hazard awareness and assures better employee compliance. And, where workers are involved in task safety planning, employee participation and buy-in to the safety program is increased.

Safety Training and Education

  • Every worker on site receives orientation? No – 5.72/Yes – 1.76

  • Type of safety orientation provided to workers? Informal – 3.80/Formal – 1.51

  • When are toolbox safety meetings held? Monday – 3.25/Daily – 1.01

  • When are toolbox safety meetings held? Tues, Weds or Thurs – 2.00/Daily – 1.01

  • How much monthly training do workers receive after orientation? <4 hrs - 2.79/ >4 hrs – 0.96

  • Monthly training provided to superintendents and project managers? <4 hrs - 2.00/ >4 hrs – 1.07

Workers must be knowledgeable about how to perform tasks safely. Training, in many forms, was found to be a very effective influence on safety performance.

The original study found that when it comes to safety, orientation and training are inseparable, but different. Orientation is the "safety first step" given to workers and visitors. It includes all information that a person needs to protect themselves from injury. Safety training is in-depth, more specific training about a variety of subjects and hazards.

The follow-up study established that almost all of the projects gave their workers safety training beyond the orientation, with an average of 5.3 hours/month. Weekly toolbox meetings to cover safety rules, hazards, corrective actions, and a review of injuries and near misses, were a strong component of many safety programs. It was interesting to learn that the day that the toolbox meeting is held and the frequency of meeting made a big difference.

Worker Involvement and Participation

  • Does a formal worker to worker observation program exist on the project? No – 2.82/Yes – 1.38

  • Do management and supervisory personnel receive behavior overview training? No – 2.82/Yes – 1.38

  • Are safety perception surveys conducted on the project? No – 2.82/Yes – 1.33

  • Total number of safety observations filed on the project? <100 - 1.93/ >100 – 1.01

This portion of the research focused on behavior-based observation programs and safety perception surveys. They found that over half of the projects had a formal observation program. Most were developed in-house and the remainder with the aid of consultants. Interestingly, the projects with formal behavior-based safety programs generally had better safety record keeping.

Three quarters of the projects used hourly workers to make observations to correct unsafe behavior and to reinforce good behavior. On other projects, supervisors and managers functioned as observers.

Use of worker safety perception surveys was a method employed on some projects to encourage workers to help find problem areas. The research indicated that this is a relatively new approach. Only a few companies have more than a year’s experience with perception surveys.

The study gave several examples of typical survey questions:

  • Do you feel safe on this project?

  • Do you feel comfortable bringing safety issues to someone else’s attention?

  • Do you feel the company would support you if you refused to work in an unsafe environment?

These surveys are intended to gauge the overall perception of safety by seeking input from the workers.

Recognition and Rewards

  • How often are incentives given to workers? Quarterly – 3.29/Weekly – 1.33

  • Is incentive based on zero injury objective? No – 3.29/Yes – 1.33

  • Do family members attend safety dinners? No – 2.35/Yes – 0.18

  • Does the project have a formal worker incentive program? No – 2.05/Yes – 3.20

Project Team 160 also examined the effectiveness of various approaches to incentives and rewards. Mathis says, "You can’t buy safety. You got to get to behavior. Recognition and rewards are only powerful if they result in safer behavior."

Incentives can broadly be divided into gifts and monetary rewards. Gifts, like jackets, ball caps and gift certificates were found to have an impact on safety performance, but little impact on reducing the number of injuries. Many of the projects in the research group used monetary rewards. With monetary awards the study found that people were more motivated to ensure that all safety items are highlighted and discussed, instead of risking losing the award.

The study uncovered another surprise about monetary awards that is worthy of note. It compared cumulative incentives with progressive incentives that increased non-linearly. Cumulative incentives are simple; typically some monetary amount times the hours worked that month. Progressive incentives are where the reward increases faster than the number of hours worked safely. The results showed projects that did not use progressive rewards had better safety records-LWCIR of 3.9 versus 6.8. The study found that smaller rewards, given more frequently as a separate check, were more effective.

But, the most remarkable finding in the entire study was a technique of involving the worker’s family members in safety dinners. Of all techniques reported back by the team, the projects where this technique was used had the lowest average LWCIR of 0.18! The conclusion one comes to is that workers take more ownership and are more accountable for their personal safety when the importance of workplace safety is shared directly by the company with the family and not just the worker. Better than meeting the family for the first time in the emergency room or worse, at the funeral home.

Subcontractor Management

  • Are there sanctions for subcontractor non-compliance with safety standards? No – 5.35/Yes – 1.43

  • Do all subcontractor workers attend a formal standard safety orientation? No – 5.33/Yes – 3.30

  • Subcontractors submit site-specific safety plans? No – 3.83/Yes – 1.37

  • How frequently do subcontractors hold safety meetings? Weekly – 2.45/Daily – 1.04

On large projects, like those in the CII study, many insulation contractors function as subcontractors. The average project employed 31 subcontractors and these subcontractors frequently employ hundreds of workers. The study points out that involvement of the subcontractor employees in the safety process is critical and vital to the safety performance of the project.

Accident/Incident Reporting and Investigation

  • To what extent are recordable incidents investigated by top management? <50% - 5.60/All - 2.00

  • Number of near-misses recorded on the project? >50 – 2.35/<50 - 0.57

The study emphasizes the importance of investigating the causes of all types of accidents and incidents to prevent recurrence. Investigation of an accident or incident should send a message of management’s concern for the safety of all workers on the project. They found that over three quarters of the projects investigated near misses, OSHA recordables, and lost work days cases.

The research found many different approaches to investigations. Including what is investigated, who conducts the investigation, and senior management’s role in the investigation.

Those who are able to obtain zero or near zero injury rates were found to have rigorous investigation procedures aimed at finding the real reasons and making recommendations on how to prevent recurrence rather than pinning blame.

Drug and Alcohol Testing

From the original research, drug and alcohol testing was found to have a significant impact on reducing injuries. Studies, conducted by others, also support that when random testing for drugs and alcohol is conducted, safety is profoundly improved. The most recent Project Team 160 study corroborated the original findings.

Some Final Thoughts

Other than the nuclear industry, I doubt there are any other industries that have done this extent of research on worker safety. The comparison of safety performance between the companies in these studies reveals many techniques have been used to create safer companies and workplaces. These same techniques can be used by members of the insulation community to improve worker safety.

The techniques that result in a zero-injury workplace can be learned and applied in any workplace. "Zero injuries" is achievable! It begins with every worker taking personal responsibility for their own safety. And everyone in the company and on the work site must adopt a "zero tolerance" attitude and do everything necessary to eliminate pain, suffering and loss in the workplace.

Last year, more than 1,800 insulators were injured seriously enough to miss work. We are headed in the right direction, but we can’t rest until we reach the point where, as Paul O’Neill said, "No one would ever be hurt at work, not just lost workday cases, but no scratches, no first aid, nothing."

V. Scott Pignolet wishes to express his deep appreciation to John Mathis and P. D. Frey from the Project Team 160 and Director, Ken Eickmann and the Construction Industry Institute (CII), for their cooperation and willingness to share information that can make a huge difference in the insulation workplace. For the complete study results and other ideas about how to improve safety in the workplace, visit the CII Web site at